Humanities: in place of strife

Let’s not make drama out of disciplinary ‘crisis’, Helen Small tells Matthew Reisz

September 26, 2013

There have been some very strident recent books about “the crisis in the humanities”.

Take the 2010 polemic Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. This points to a (little-noticed) “crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance” as education becomes increasingly geared to “producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself”.

Socrates famously claimed to be a “gadfly” to the ancient Athenian polis. Today’s democracies, in Nussbaum’s view, are in equally urgent need of the critical thinking fostered by training in the humanities.

In her latest book, The Value of the Humanities, Helen Small, professor of English at the University of Oxford, sets out to do something different. Although she certainly has major concerns (“some aspects of how the government understands what the humanities do, and tries to respond to it, are hugely problematic”), she believes that the talk of “crisis” is often overstated and “wants to step back from that rabbit-in-the-headlights response”.

She suspects that “policymakers get pretty fed up with that tone of critical grievance and extremity. You can’t have a good conversation on those terms.”

Even more important, “arguing under pressure can lead to bad arguments”.

Take the “gadfly” concept itself, she adds.

“The standard claim of Nussbaum and others is that the humanities do critical thinking,” says Small. This tends to downplay other kinds of valuable work being done in the discipline, as well as the critical thinking we find in other subjects - and it turns humanities departments into what the book calls an institutionalised “plague of modern Socratic gadflies”.

But the argument also urgently needs to be turned against itself. Do this and other claims that humanities scholars make about the value of their work stand up to the kind of close critical scrutiny scholars apply to other texts?

Defence of the realm

Small’s book sets out a taxonomy and assesses the five principal arguments that have been used in relation to the discipline.

The first describes the distinctive features of the humanities such as their “high tolerance of ambiguity” and truth claims based on “coherence” and “rightness” rather than “correctness” and “validity”, builds this into a theory of two or three distinct cultures - and then puts the humanities at the top of the tree.

The other arguments propose that the humanities are “useful” in a purely economic sense or beyond; that they contribute to individual or national happiness; that they are worth studying “for their own sake”; and that they perform a gadfly function in democracy.

The last of these is pretty new, but the other three have clear links with the ideas expressed by three eminent Victorian writers - Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill and Cardinal Newman - in an era when “one sees emerging the now familiar pressure to justify expenditure on educating students in the humanities in the face of resistance from many political economists”.

Small returns to their work to elucidate what we can learn from them as well as where we need to go beyond them.

Although each of the arguments has its limitations and weaknesses and so cannot, on its own, provide an “all-silencing justification” for the humanities, taken together they amount to a defence of the many different things historians, musicologists, philosophers and literary critics can contribute.

To take just one example from the book: Small is understandably sceptical about “the humanities’ power reliably to make their students and scholars happier people”. But although they can certainly offer “direct pleasures”, more significant is their role in “deepening our understanding of what happiness consists of” and “how we may best hope to attain it”. They thereby offer “a richer and more accurate account of happiness than is recognized in most of the current economic and psychological literature on the subject”.

Asked about other examples, Small points to the dangerous prevalence of “economists with no sense of the history of their discipline” and “empirical cognitive psychology operating without any scepticism about what brain imaging can tell us”.

In such cases, she says, “you will find representatives of the humanities, including myself, standing up and saying: ‘We would have a better public conversation if it incorporated forms of thinking that are called humanistic.’ There’s a genuine concern when those kinds of thinking get downgraded.”

The Value of the Humanities is published by Oxford University Press on 3 October.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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